The Sequence of Christian Initiation: Confirmation Before First Communion?

 

(This is Neil) Please join me in keeping Michael Dubruiel, Amy Welborn, and their family in your prayers. Michael Dubruiel’s final column, a moving reflection on trust, can be read here. You should read it before continuing with this post. Dubruiel’s books can be ordered through the Our Sunday Visitor web store here.

 

This post is meant to ask a single question: Should we receive Confirmation before or after we receive First Communion? While the sequence of these sacraments is not a matter of dogma, the answer is not necessarily unimportant. The answer, I think, will partly reveal our theology of the sacrament of Confirmation, a sacrament that, as Todd wrote earlier this month, is often described as “in search of a theology” (a somewhat perilous situation to be sure).  This post will be indebted to a very interesting short article by Fr Paul Turner that originally appeared in the March 2008 Worship and is available on his website.

 

It might seem rather odd that there isn’t a clear answer to the question of when the sacrament of Confirmation should be received. But such is the case. In his apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), Pope Benedict noted that the “ecclesial customs of the East” differ from “the practice of the West.” As we shall see, there have also been variances in the “practice of the West.”  The Pope says, “Concretely, it needs to be seen which practice better enables the faithful to put the sacrament of the Eucharist at the centre, as the goal of the whole process of initiation.”

 

Furthermore, it might seem rather odd that we are still “in search of a theology” of Confirmation. But, again, such is the case. In 1998, during a meeting of the US Bishops, the now-retired Bishop Emil Wcela said that he “asked Cardinal Ratzinger if there was any movement in Rome toward a theological or general, universal understanding of what the Sacrament of Confirmation meant. He said … the time was not yet ripe – not mature yet for a decision.” In his article, Fr Turner notes that Benedict, in Sacramentum Caritatis, is able to relate most of the sacraments to the “central” sacrament of the Eucharist – the Eucharist perfects the gifts received at Baptism, the Eucharist, the Pope says, links the marriage bond “to the eucharistic unity of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church,” and so on. But, while the Pope declares that our reception of Confirmation must be “ordered to the Eucharist,” it isn’t clear how this should be the case. It still seems that we are searching for a “theological or general, universal understanding.”

 

It seems as though the situation might be clarified in time. But how did we end up here? By the 19th century, the ancient practice of Latin Rite bishops confirming infants was very rarely seen. The minimum age for confirmation was generally considered to be seven years, although the age fluctuated, and many people simply went unconfirmed. By the middle of the century, Fr Turner tells us, regional church councils sought to clarify the relationship between Confirmation and First Communion. They generally thought that First Communion came first. Why? The Council of Tours in 1849 said:

 

In order that the faithful may obtain more abundant fruit from the confirmation they have received, we decree that no one may be admitted to the sacrament until he or she comes to first communion, unless of course a grave reason argues otherwise in the judgment of the bishop.

 

The Council of Prague in 1860 likewise appealed to practical reasons:

 

For confirmation has been ordained for this in the first place, that we may be found instructed in its power and prepared when we must fight for the faith of Christ. No one prudently judges children who lack the use of reason to be fit for this kind of battle. Children who have obtained the use of reason, for whom the riches of receiving this sacrament are rather frequently offered, should not easily be brought to the mysteries of holy chrism without reasonable cause before they have been admitted to first communion.

 

In the Diocese of Mende (1863), in southeast France, some practical reasons that will sound quite familiar to us were given to put off Confirmation:

 

It is often good and useful not to admit children to confirmation immediately after first communion, in order to keep them longer in catechism class and thus to complete their religious education.

 

The problem with these practical reasons is that they can lead to semi-Pelagianism. The sacrament of Confirmation turns into a mere ratification or recognition of human achievement – reaching a certain standard of rationality or natural age (see, perhaps, the justifiable concern of our present Catechism, n. 308).  Furthermore, the reception of Confirmation after First Communion did challenge historical precedent. Rome generally wanted Confirmation to precede First Communion because of tradition. In an alternative history, the First Vatican Council would have taken up the matter (although one does hesitate before using “First Vatican Council” and “alternative history” in the same sentence). In any case, the Council did not and nothing was promulgated about the practice. But a schema for the Council reads:

 

Since in some places a custom contrary to the perpetual practice of the church has grown up, in which confirmation is administered by an absurd order only to those who have already been admitted to the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist, we wish this to be corrected completely; especially since one who has already begun to fight against the enemy should not be kept from armor. It should be clear, as St Thomas Aquinas says, that many in the age of childhood have fought bravely for the sake of Christ because of the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received.

 

Likewise, Pope Leo XIII wrote to the Bishop of Marseilles, approving his decision to celebrate Confirmation before First Communion. The Pope noted – as had the schema – that the “faithful, even from the tender years,  have a need ‘to be clothed with strength from on high.’” Leo also wrote, “Moreover, adolescents having thus been confirmed become more conformable to understanding precepts, and more fit for receiving the Eucharist afterwards, and they grasp more abundant benefits from what they receive.” Most directly, in 1932, the Sacred Congregation on Sacraments said, “It is truly opportune and more conformable to the nature and effects of the sacrament of confirmation, that children should only approach the sacred table for the first time after the reception of the sacrament of confirmation …”

 

As Fr Turner says, we see two tendencies. Regional councils postpone Confirmation for practical reasons. Rome argues the opposite for traditional reasons. What about Vatican II? There isn’t anything from the Second Vatican Council that would mandate receiving Confirmation after First Communion, save, perhaps, for a line about Christian initiation being “completed” in Confirmation (in the Rite of Confirmation). Turner writes, “Every other statement from the Council, and even the ordering of chapters in the Code of Canon Law, places confirmation between baptism and first communion.” And Presbyterorum Ordinis would seem to suggest that the Eucharist brings Christian initiation to completion. One can also say that, after the Second Vatican Council, Latin Rite Christians should also be more aware of the more continuous practice in the Eastern Church, where Confirmation is celebrated before First Communion.

 

We do have another consideration, as Pope Benedict reminded us in Sacramentum Caritatis: What practice is more likely to make us realize the centrality of the Eucharist?

 

What do you think? When should the faithful receive the sacrament of Confirmation? How should we sequence the sacraments of Christian initiation? (Presently, Confirmation is received before Holy Communion in all Eastern rites, and, in the Latin rite, when the three sacraments of initiation are received together).

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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16 Responses to The Sequence of Christian Initiation: Confirmation Before First Communion?

  1. Katherine says:

    Interesting post. I don’t know what the best solution is. If we went to the Eastern practice, or reversed the sequence to Confirmation before Eucharist, we would certainly need to rethink the way we catechize young people (not a bad idea anyway). I wonder if it would not also, in practical terms, eliminate the bishop as the ordinary minister of the sacrament of Confirmation?

    Most of the sources you mention date from the time before Pope Pius X lowered the age of First Communion. So those texts probably assume that the normal age for First Communion was about 12. Especially in large dioceses or mission areas, if you had to wait for Confirmation by the bishop before being admitted to the Eucharist, it could be a very long wait. (In that respect, the Eucharist-first sequence DID stress the centrality of the Eucharist, not as the ‘goal’, but as essential. The requirement of yearly Communion goes back to Lateran IV in 1215 …)

    Also, do I remember correctly that in Eastern practice, little ones receive all three sacraments at the time of baptism, then receive the Eucharist freely until they are old enough for the sacrament of Penance, and then follow the grown-up discipline with regard to confession and communion?

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Katherine,

    Thanks, as always, for writing.

    1. I agree that we would need to “rethink the way we catechize young people.” And I agree that such a reconsideration wouldn’t be a “bad idea,” even if might be initially unpopular. I am rather pessimistic about the present state of catechesis. And I really do worry about the semi-Pelagianism of certain theologies of Confirmation.

    2. Of course, you’re right that the 19th century sources predate Quam Singulari and the lowering of the age of First Communion to 7. Turner does mention this in the Worship article and his book.

    What, then, of the bishop as “ordinary minister of the sacrament of Confirmation” and the possibility of a really “long wait”? Honestly, I have no real solution. My unrealistic solution would be to rethink the size of our extraordinarily large dioceses. The bishop’s role as “ordinary minister of the sacrament of Confirmation” could then be obviously related to his role as prime presider over the Eucharist.

    As it is, our bishops are more like distant coordinators and administrators of a very large number of parishes. With some Orthodox theologians – Zizioulas, Schmemann – I am uncomfortable with this development, and I tend to think of the problem of waiting for Confirmation as symptomatic of this underlying problem.

    3. I believe that you are right about Eastern practice.

    Thanks again. BTW, did you ever receive the earlier article from Liturgy that you asked about? (My e-mail was initially returned.)

    Best,
    Neil

  3. Liam says:

    Excellent thoughts, excellent open questions. Another open question is whether we could benefit from a clearer articulation of the sacramental of chrismation in the Roman rite of baptism vis-a-vis the sacrament of Confirmation.

    And there are aspects of the sacrament of Confirmation as understood in common Catholic conversation that might be better served by re-development of the former sacramental of foot washing, or whether that would be a sacramental linked to a sacrament the way chrismation is linked to Baptism in the Roman rite.

    I lean towards moving confirmation before communion.

    And I, of course, completely agree about re-thinking diocesan sizes (administrative functions can be grouped for efficiency’s sake at the metropolitan or regional or even national episcopal level – this would, of course, mean authority over them would have be more synodal than lone-ranger in nature (many ordinaries would chafe at that), unless an archdeacon were constituted for oversight).

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks for writing; it is always good to hear from you.

    1. I think that we would agree about re-thinking diocesan sizes. Of course, our discussion would not have any practical consequences. But I would say that one of the major (and undiscussed) problems in American Catholicism is that our dioceses are too large, and so are many of our parishes.

    2. One possible consideration – again, unrealistic – is to think about bishops confiding the administration of Confirmation to priests. To be sure, some would argue that bishops really should administer Confirmation, since they are clearly the successors of the apostles and have been given the fullness of Holy Orders. And, yes, they have a point.

    But there is precedent for bishops delegating Confirmation to priests. Canon 863 says, “The baptism of adults, at least of those who have completed their fourteenth year, is to be deferred to the diocesan bishop so that he himself administers it if he has judged it Expedient.” Needless to say, most adult baptisms are presently not administered by the bishop.

    Canon 882 says, “The ordinary minister of confirmation is a bishop; a presbyter provided with this faculty in virtue of universal law or the special grant of the competent authority also confers this sacrament validly.”

    Can’t more presbyters be provided with this “faculty”?

    3. I must admit to being so ignorant of the sacramental of chrismation in the Roman Rite that I can’t speculate about the fruits of its clearer articulation.

    But I do like the direction of your thought about exploring other sacramentals to take the place of late Confirmation.

    Let’s take a good (although ultimately unconvincing) argument for late Confirmation. In a Theological Studies article, William Levada, now prefect of the CDF, wrote:

    But we should also consider – perhaps especially in the US – the ecumenical situation of Reformation communities like the Baptists, who reject altogether the practice of infant baptism as unbiblical, or Lutherans and others who maintain the practice of confirmation of adolescents. Could not confirmation as the completion of infant initiation, at a time when personal faith and conversion to the Lord Jesus are possible, be seen as ecumenically more senstitive to the traditions coming from the Reformation which are so prominent in the US?

    If we suggest earlier Confirmation, so that it is received before First Communion, we will need to articulate a sacramental to express “personal faith and conversion” during, say, adolescence. Perhaps, like in some ecclesial communities, our young people can make a confession before the Church and receive a Bible. Or, perhaps, there is your example of foot washing.

    Thanks.

    Neil

  5. Deacon Eric says:

    Neil made mention of the pragmatic considerations of the Diocese of Mende, which based their decision on the ability to keep children in catechism classes longer. And that argument will have a strong undercurrent of support for people who want a Catholic Bar/Bat Mitzvah, signifying a “graduation” from religious education. Of course none of this is consistent with our tradition. It reminds me of priests who move the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday to the end of Mass rather than its proper place in the liturgy so people won’t leave before the collection.

    I suggest there is a further issue of pragmatism that will ultimately doom any chance of restoring the ancient sequence of initiation for children. What bishop wants to incur the ire of parents who will feel they have been robbed of the opportunity to dress up their second-graders in First Communion outfits and have the resulting photographs? Or the ability to use Confirmation as a way to keep their teenagers in religious education? These parents are not concerned with the theology of the sacraments; they want the customs, which they probably think are of ancient origin. And it will be a rare bishop indeed who will risk their anger.

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Deacon Eric,

    Thank you for writing – sorry for taking so long to get back to you. I am sure that you are right about pragmatism. And I do realize that there are more pressing issues for most bishops.

    But, if I were to have a conversation with a bishop on this matter, I would say:

    1. In my experience, many ex-Catholics or alienated Catholics believe that the Catholic Church teaches some form of Pelagianism, or at least semi-Pelagianism. This is a pastoral disaster. The present placement of Confirmation contributes to this.

    2. Also in my experience, many ex-Catholics or alienated Catholics believe that the Catholic Church is a rather Darwinian institution that makes decisions to maintain its power and influence. Making decisions about sacraments to “keep children in catechism classes” or maintain customs that are of recent vintage and have little theological merit contributes to this perception.

    3. I think that the sustainability of a certain sort of “cultural” Catholicism – First Communion outfits, etc – is in rapid decline.

    Thanks for your comments and writings elsewhere.

    Neil

  7. Deacon Eric says:

    Neil, I’m with you man! I’d add that we’ll never get back to a sustained understanding of the importance of baptism throughout our lives without returning to the ancient progression. As long as the sacraments of initiation are perceived as separate islands in one’s childhood, unrelated to each other, the importance of initiation can never be effectively communicated.

  8. Neil says:

    Dear Deacon Eric,

    Thanks again for writing. I’ll try to post more about this in the future. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Best,
    Neil

  9. Katherine says:

    I would love to hear from our Eastern brothers and sisters how they mentor their young people into adulthood in the church.

    My one concern about a shift back to the original practice would be that it might be done abruptly, without adequate catechesis and sensitivity, or recognition of the gap the change leaves somewhere else.

    For all the problems with present practice, it seems to me it does one good thing in regard to another problem — bishops being distant coordinators/administrators. In our diocese, the bishop spends a lot of time on the road, going to parishes for confirmation. Especially at a weekend liturgy, that brings him into the heart of the parish’s life, and gives him a chance to spend some time with the people — not just the confirmands, but the parish family as a whole.

    Neil, no, the article didn’t come through. (Our email system can be finicky.) But I am still interested.

    Katherine

  10. Neil says:

    Dear Katherine,

    Thanks for your response. I’ll try to see if I can find more information about confirmation and mentorship in the Eastern Church.

    I’ll send the article again tomorrow.

    Best,
    Neil

  11. Jim McK says:

    I’ve been away for a week, and already posted something on this in response to Todd. But I can clarify here.

    The ‘sacramental of christmation’ to which Liam refers is accompanied by a prayer about becoming the Anointed = the prophet priest and king. This obviously is signified by anointing rather than water, and so is a way to convey a meaning that is associated with “Baptism”. (Baptism has two meanings — 1> immersion in water; and 2> the whole ritual including chrism, clothing, candle, etc. It is not clear that the meaning of ‘prophet, priest and king’ was ever associated with baptism in the first sense during Christianity’s first millennium.)

    For those initiated with catechesis, non-infants, this sacramental is dropped and only the sacrament of confirmation is given. Does the “prophet priest and king” meaning apply here to confirmation as an anointing?

    (These questions are probably complicated by the Polish practice of referring to Baptism as Christening, thus making the chrism rather than water the significant element.)

    As you can see, there are two basic theologies for these anointings. The prophet priest king or strengthening. These are not incompatible meanings, but I believe they developed out of two distinct cultures coming together. The Semitic cultures, including Israel, had a sense of conferring authority with the act of anointing. Hellenic culture otoh used anointing as preparation for athletic exercises, esp. wrestling. Both fields of meaning are used in St Paul and St Ignatius of Antioch, ie very early. But the west favored confirmation, strengthening, while the east favored the semitic usage.

    Sorry to being going on like this, but early Christianity was quite dynamic in developing these notions; now they are almost lost and I am tripping over myself explaining them.

    Anyway, I think chrismation as prophet priest and king is the core meaning of the sacrament; it is what was lost in terms of confirmation’s theology as it drifted to baptism. It is only one with authority who can misuse authority, ie sin, so reconciliation can only follow the sacrament of chrismation, and Eucharist follows reconciliation.

    But if strengthening is going to be your core meaning for the sacrament, you have already lost the dynamic of the early church, and there will never be a coherent theology,

  12. Neil says:

    Dear Jim McK,

    Thanks for writing. I am afraid that I don’t know enough about chrismation to respond in a constructive way. Would you recommend any particular reading on the subject?

    Best,
    Neil

  13. Jim McK says:

    Dear Nail,

    RCIA 319 says “If the confirmation of those baptized is separated from their baptism, the celebrant anoints them with chrism immediately after baptism…”

    I assume this is what Liam meant by the “sacramental of chrismation.” It is what I am referring to when I use the term, except I am also referring to the sacrament of Chrismation in the Eastern Churches which occurs at the same moment, and has at least since the time of Tertullian. (who is from the west) Chrismation in the East is generally understood to be what is called Confirmation in the West.

    Confusion about the anointing with chrism in Confirmation cannot be dispelled without addressing the anointing with chrism in baptism, imo. The norm is adult baptism, where confirmation is administered after baptism. Infants who are confirmed at a different time than their baptism receive two anointings with chrism in place of the one received by an adult.

    The prayer accompanying western chrismation asks that the recipient “may remain forever a member of Christ who is Priest, Prophet and King.”

    JP2’s apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici talks about the meaning of the anointing in baptism and confirmation in p. 14 ff. I take it that the meaning expounded upon is in chrismation, but also in confirmation administered immediately after baptism.

    I hope I am not being too persnickety, but I think any discussion of Confirmation has to understand the norm (in Adults) as well as the most prevalent form, in those baptized as infants.

    Jim M

  14. Liam says:

    Jim

    Yes, that was what I intended – in the Roman rite’s baptism of infants, there is a sacramental of chrismation (which is required for the liceity of the baptism, but not its validity), whereas chrismation is a mystery/sacrament in the Eastern churches.

  15. Pingback: Confirmation: A Problematic History? « Catholic Sensibility

  16. kathy says:

    Helpful blog. Thanks for sharing

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